Little Steven Vs. Snooki

Even if New Jersey’s governor approves a measure inspired by former “Jersey Shore” star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi to cap what state public universities can pay speakers, Rutgers University is still offering $35,000 for this year’s commencement speaker.

Rutgers says that the honorarium offered to actor and musician Steven Van Zandt is paid for with money from its beverage contract with Coca-Cola and not taxpayer money.

“I don’t think it will be affected, honestly, but at the least we’ve got their attention when it comes to spending in general,” New Jersey Republican Assemblyman John DiMaio, who sponsored the measure, said Friday.

“In a time when college costs are so high, maybe some of those revenues could have been going into the classroom or they could be more judicious in how they’re bringing speakers in,” he said.

Steven Van Zandt
John Davisson
– Steven Van Zandt
SXSW, Austin Music Awards, Austin, TX

The bill, passed by lawmakers Thursday, caps the amount of state money that can be spent on speakers at $10,000. It still needs Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s approval.

DiMaio said he was inspired to write the legislation after Snooki was paid $32,000 collected from student fees to speak at an event at Rutgers University in 2011. Snooki’s pay was $2,000 more than Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison received to speak at commencement.

Rutgers spokeswoman Karen Smith says that money from the Coca-Cola contract is “used for a variety of things that benefit our students.”

“It has long been our policy at Rutgers not to use any state funds to pay commencement speakers,” she added.

Many colleges struggle with tight budgets and some have drawn sharp criticism for paying hefty speaking fees. Colleges that pay for celebrity speakers say they can impress donors and attract the interest of potential students. A notable speaker also is meant as a reward for the graduating class.

Former President Barack Obama delivered last year’s commencement address at Rutgers, but turned down the $35,000 honorarium. The university was still on the hook for $1.43 million for the commencement, including $523,000 in additional funding that went toward more police, a traffic safety consultant to coordinate road closures and other expenses.

Smith said that about 52,000 people attended last year’s commencement, an increase of nearly 50 percent from 2015, when Bill Nye “The Science Guy” spoke.